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Everyone knows that the James Webb Space Telescope is a ground-breaking infrared space telescope that’s helping us better understand the cosmos. The JWST’s discerning infrared eyes are deepening our understanding of everything from exoplanets to primitive galaxies to the birth of stars.

But it’s not the first ground-breaking infrared space telescope we’ve launched. There was IRAS, then ISO, then the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Spitzer is the JWST’s most recent infrared predecessor, and the JWST is observing one of the same targets that the Spitzer did, taking note of some puzzling changes.

In 2008, the Spitzer observed SZ Chamaeleontis (SZ Cha), a T-Tauri star that’s only a few million years old and still growing. It’s typical of young stars and is surrounded by a protoplanetary disk, a thick disk of rotating gas and dust from which planets form. Our own Sun was similar to this five billion years ago before the Solar System took shape.

When the Spitzer observed SZ Cha, it noticed a specific type of the chemical element neon in the disk, called Neon iii. Neon can only ionize under extreme energy, so its presence is evidence of the star’s extreme UV (EUV) light. It’s also scarce in disks being bombarded by X-rays, indicating that SZ Cha wasn’t very energetic in X-ray emissions.

Young stars can be very energetic, and that can power the photoevaporation of their protoplanetary disks. This puts planets in a race against time. They must form before the disk becomes too diffuse. Though Spitzer’s observations of Neon III indicate powerful stellar radiation, it’s EUV radiation. EUV radiation is powerful enough to ionize stubborn neon, but it’s not as effective at photoevaporating the disk surrounding SZ Cha.

But now, the JWST has observed SZ Cha and found something quite different. It found Neon iii, but it also found Neon ii. More importantly, the two exist in a ratio that’s at a typical level. What does it mean? “One way to distinguish between EUV and X-ray creation of neon fine-structure emission is by measuring the [Ne iii]-to-[Ne ii] line flux ratio,” the authors explain.

Contrasting data from NASA's James Webb and Spitzer space telescopes show a change in the disk surrounding the star SZ Chamaeleontis (SZ Cha) in just 15 years. In 2008, Spitzer's detection of significant neon III made SZ Cha an outlier among similar young protoplanetary disks. However, when Webb followed up on SZ Cha in 2023, the ratio of neon II to III was within typical levels. What happened? Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)
Contrasting data from NASA’s James Webb and Spitzer space telescopes show a change in the disk surrounding the star SZ Chamaeleontis (SZ Cha) in just 15 years. In 2008, Spitzer’s detection of significant neon III made SZ Cha an outlier among similar young protoplanetary disks. However, when Webb followed up on SZ Cha in 2023, the ratio of neon II to III was within typical levels. What happened? Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

This means that the young star is radiating different energy. “This points to a switch from EUV-dominated to X-ray-dominated photoevaporation of the disk,” the authors point out.

“Once again, the universe is showing us that none of its methods are as simple as we might like to make them.”

Catherine Espaillat, Boston University.

Instead of EUV, the star is bombarding its protoplanetary disk with X-rays. The problem is that X-rays are much more efficient at blowing away the disk, and this means that the clock is ticking for any planets forming in the disk.

These results are in a new paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The paper is “JWST Detects Neon Line Variability in a Protoplanetary Disk.” The lead author is Catherine Espaillat of Boston University.

“Planets are essentially in a race against time to form up in the disk before it evaporates,” explained Thanawuth Thanathibodee of Boston
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How to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail Without a Permit

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By Michael Lanza

So you just got the inspired idea to backpack the Teton Crest Trail and discovered you’re months late to reserve a backcountry permit. You’ve probably also learned that it’s possible to get a walk-in backcountry permit for Grand Teton National Park—but competition for those is high, especially for the camping zones along the TCT.

So you’re wondering: Is it possible to backpack the Teton Crest Trail without a permit? In a word, the answer is: yes. It’s somewhat complicated and not easy, but this story explains how to do that.

The Teton Crest Trail deservedly sees sky-high demand for backcountry permits. It’s unquestionably one of the 10 best backpacking trips in America, incredibly scenic virtually every step from start to finish, featuring high passes with sweeping vistas, endless meadows bursting with wildflowers, beautiful lakes, creeks, and waterfalls, a good chance of seeing wildlife like elk and moose—and some of the best campsites you will ever pitch a tent in.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 37
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my expert e-book to backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231051/Tet19-018-Backpackers-on-the-Teton-Crest-Trail-Death-Canyon-Shelf-Grand-Teton-N.P..jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231051/Tet19-018-Backpackers-on-the-Teton-Crest-Trail-Death-Canyon-Shelf-Grand-Teton-N.P..jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231051/Tet19-018-Backpackers-on-the-Teton-Crest-Trail-Death-Canyon-Shelf-Grand-Teton-N.P.-1024×683.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park.” class=”wp-image-38603″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231051/Tet19-018-Backpackers-on-the-Teton-Crest-Trail-Death-Canyon-Shelf-Grand-Teton-N.P..jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231051/Tet19-018-Backpackers-on-the-Teton-Crest-Trail-Death-Canyon-Shelf-Grand-Teton-N.P..jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231051/Tet19-018-Backpackers-on-the-Teton-Crest-Trail-Death-Canyon-Shelf-Grand-Teton-N.P..jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231051/Tet19-018-Backpackers-on-the-Teton-Crest-Trail-Death-Canyon-Shelf-Grand-Teton-N.P..jpg 1080w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231051/Tet19-018-Backpackers-on-the-Teton-Crest-Trail-Death-Canyon-Shelf-Grand-Teton-N.P..jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my expert e-book to backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

I’ve taken at least 20 trips in the Tetons and several on the Teton Crest Trail over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

See my story about my most-recent TCT trip, “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” which requires a paid subscription to

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Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail—A Photo Gallery

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By Michael Lanza

As we hiked up the North Fork of Cascade Canyon on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park, moments after the path emerged from the forest into a meadow strewn with boulders and still dappled with blooming wildflowers in late August, my friend David turned to look over his shoulder and blurted out, “Oh, wow, look at that view!” Behind us, the sheer north faces of the Grand Teton and Mount Owen towered a vertical mile above us, shooting straight up over the canyon like fireworks (photo above).

By that point on our trip, though, uncontrolled outbursts of awe were occurring several times a day. That’s what it’s like to backpack the Teton Crest Trail.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 35
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my e-book “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.”
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232037/DSC_2401.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232037/DSC_2401.jpg?fit=900%2C599&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232037/DSC_2401-1024×681.jpg?resize=900%2C599&ssl=1″ alt=”A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.” class=”wp-image-35224″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232037/DSC_2401.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232037/DSC_2401.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232037/DSC_2401.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232037/DSC_2401.jpg 1080w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232037/DSC_2401.jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my e-book “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.”

Three friends and I backpacked a 36-mile traverse of Grand Teton National Park, mostly on the Teton Crest Trail, in late August—in many ways, an ideal time to hike there. While I’ve backpacked the TCT several times now, it was the first time for all three of them.

Seeing the reactions of these friends—every one of them very experienced backpackers who’ve taken numerous trips with me—to the scenery along this classic trek, reaffirmed my opinion that few multi-day hikes offer so much grandeur almost every step of way like the Teton Crest Trail. But I’ll let the photos in this story make that case.

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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
” data-image-caption=”David Gordon backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. Click photo to get my customized help planning your trip.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232029/DSC_2658.jpg?fit=300%2C175&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/06232029/DSC_2658.jpg?fit=900%2C525&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces
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New Simulation Explains how Supermassive Black Holes Grew so Quickly

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One of the main scientific objectives of next-generation observatories (like the James Webb Space Telescope) has been to observe the first galaxies in the Universe – those that existed at Cosmic Dawn. This period is when the first stars, galaxies, and black holes in our Universe formed, roughly 50 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang. By examining how these galaxies formed and evolved during the earliest cosmological periods, astronomers will have a complete picture of how the Universe has changed with time.

As addressed in previous articles, the results of Webb‘s most distant observations have turned up a few surprises. In addition to revealing that galaxies formed rapidly in the early Universe, astronomers also noticed these galaxies had particularly massive supermassive black holes (SMBH) at their centers. This was particularly confounding since, according to conventional models, these galaxies and black holes didn’t have enough time to form. In a recent study, a team led by Penn State astronomers has developed a model that could explain how SMBHs grew so quickly in the early Universe.

The research team was led by W. Niel Brandt, the Eberly Family Chair Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State’s Eberly College of Science. Their research is described in two papers presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS224), which took place from June 9th to June 13th in Madison, Wisconsin. Their first paper, “Mapping the Growth of Supermassive Black Holes as a Function of Galaxy Stellar Mass and Redshift,” appeared on March 29th in The Astrophysical Journal, while the second is pending publication. Fan Zou, an Eberly College graduate student, was the lead author of both papers.

Illustration of an active quasar. What role does its dark matter halo play in activating the quasar? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Illustration of an active quasar. New research shows that SMBHs eat rapidly enough to trigger them. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As they note in their papers, SMBHs grow through two main channels: by accreting cold gas from their host galaxy or merging with the SMBHs of other galaxies. When it comes to accretion, previous research has shown that a black hole’s accretion rate (BHAR) is strongly linked to its galaxy’s stellar mass and the redshift of its general stellar population. “Supermassive black holes in galaxy centers have millions-to-billions of times the mass of the Sun,” explained Zhou in a recent NASA press release. How do they become such monsters? This is a question that astronomers have been studying for decades, but it has been difficult to track all the ways black holes can grow reliably.”

For their research, the team relied on forefront X-ray sky survey data obtained by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the ESA’s X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission-Newton (XMM-Newton), and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics’ eROSITA telescope. They measured the accretion-driven growth in a sample of 8000 active galactic nuclei (AGNs) located in 1.3 million galaxies. This was combined with IllustrisTNG, a suite of state-of-the-art cosmological simulations that model galaxy formation, evolution, and mergers from Cosmic Dawn to the present. This combined approach has provided the best modeling to date of SMBH growth over the past 12 billion years. Said Brandt:

“During the process of consuming gas from their hosting galaxies, black holes radiate strong X-rays, and this is the key to tracking their growth by accretion. We measured the accretion-driven growth using X-ray sky survey data accumulated over more than 20 years from three of the most powerful X-ray facilities ever launched into space.

“In our hybrid approach, we combine the observed growth by accretion with the simulated growth through mergers to reproduce the growth history of supermassive black holes. With this new approach, we believe we have produced the most realistic picture of the growth of supermassive black holes up to the present day.”

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This still image shows the timeline running from the Big
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